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What is a Sawbones?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A sawbones is a slang term used to describe a physician, and more specifically a surgeon, especially one who would have served in battle. The term is often tied to the US Civil War, but in fact predates it. Author Charles Dickens used it to refer to a doctor in the 1837 novel Pickwick Papers, which suggests common use of the expression at least 20 years prior to the American Civil War.

The path from surgeon to sawbones is an easy one to follow. Before the advent of antibiotics, one of the principal means of treating infected wounds, large or small, was through amputation. The danger of gangrene developing from even the very slightest cuts often had surgeons cutting off extremities or limbs in order to avoid blood poisoning. Wounds were then often cauterized (burned) with heated pokers.

In order to cut through a limb or extremity, a doctor had to literally saw through the bones. This means that the nickname is really quite grisly when its origin is considered. Those who ascribe the term’s origin to the American Civil War are at least partially correct, since battlefield amputation was so common. There are descriptions of field hospitals with amputated limbs piled up that are enough to give a person with the strongest stomach nightmares.

Though the term is sometimes considered derogatory, this isn’t always the case, and doctors may call themselves by this name, particularly if they are surgeons. For instance, cardiac surgeons must use a sternal saw in a procedure called cracking the chest. They must literally saw through the sternum in order to get to the heart for open-heart repairs. Orthopedic surgeons, who specifically work with the skeletal system, may most refer to themselves as sawbones, though the term is certainly not used with the frequency that it once was.

While the term may not be used so much in present day, there’s an interesting, still fairly modern allusion to the term in the first Star Trek television series. Dr. Leonard McCoy is affectionately called “Bones” by Captain Kirk, which is an obvious reference to sawbones. It matters little that, in the Star Trek universe, cutting into people is generally considered a barbaric vestige of the past and relatively unnecessary.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon314270 — On Jan 17, 2013

I wonder if -- as you say the word was in common use -- it may have been an invented by Dickens.

By orangey03 — On Sep 13, 2012

@gravois – I think this term is mostly used by the elderly. I've never heard a young person say it, but I've heard plenty of my grandparents' friends use it.

My grandfather's best friend is a surgeon, and he affectionately refers to him as “old sawbones.” They laugh about it, though. They both grew up in a time when everyone wasn't trying to be so politically correct all the time.

By JackWhack — On Sep 13, 2012

Orthopedic surgeons are often referred to as sawbones, because they work with bones and tendons. I think that people believe that they have to cut off limbs much more frequently than they actually do.

Really, orthopedic surgeons wind up using bone screws and other methods much more often than they use a saw to cut bones all the way off. Rarely does anyone actually look at the facts before coming up with a cutesy nickname, though. If it sounds funny, they just say it, whether it bears any resemblance to reality or not.

By feasting — On Sep 12, 2012

@shell4life – Surgeons vary greatly in how they perceive themselves. My neighbor is a surgeon, and when someone called him a sawbones at our community cookout, he gave them a loud and lengthy lecture about how disrespectful that term was.

He went on to say that he does so much more than cut into bones, and if he ever does have to amputate someone's limb, it is a very sad thing for him. He tries to avoid amputation at all costs. It is a very touchy subject for him.

By shell4life — On Sep 12, 2012

My uncle is a surgeon, but he has a lighthearted sense of humor. He had a “sawbones” shirt made, and he wears it out in public.

The shirt has a picture of a surgeon with a crazy look in his eyes hovering maniacally over an unconscious body with a big saw in his hands. Those who know my uncle find the shirt humorous, because they are amazed that he can laugh at the stereotypes of his profession so easily.

By jonrss — On Aug 18, 2011

We hear a lot about all the grisly amputations that happened during the civil war. And while I'm sure that they were dirty, painful and often ineffective, it is my understanding that the science of battlefield medicine advanced a lot during the Civil War. I've also hear that one of the greatest advances was in the area of amputation.

I am not a doctor and don't really know any specifics but I can understand how this could be true. The scope of the Civil War was massive. With that many battlefield casualties there must have been lots of opportunities for doctors to practice (a grim truth). After 5 years they were probably a lot better than when they started.

By truman12 — On Aug 18, 2011

The term sawbones seems like one of those gory and nihilistic terms that seems to pop up in war. I'm thinking also of calling a helmet a "brain bucket" or PTSD being "shell shocked". It seems like soldiers who have been to war adopt a kind of gallows humor where they do not try and deny the possibility of death or serious injury. By contrast they embrace it. Doctors do lots of good, but sometimes they have to saw through your bones. I can see how a soldier would focus on this.

By gravois — On Aug 17, 2011

My grandfather used to always refer to doctors as sawbones. I don't think I ever heard him reference them by any other name. Toward the end of his life he was pretty ill and he had lots of occasions to speak about doctors. Always sawbones.

It was really kind of endearing. He used lots of slang and old sayings in his normal speech. He had a way with words in that reminded me of an old timey carnival barker. Sawbones was just one of many silly/strange terms he used for things. I find myself saying sawbones sometimes just to smile and remind myself of my grandfather.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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